Hard Work Brings Contentment, Dream Job or Not
The God-given joy of meaningful work is often, in our late-modern cultural moment, sapped by overwork, overregulation, and mission drift.
John StonestreetTimothy D Padgett
According to a story in Business Insider, one woman who gave up on her passion is now all the happier for it. Maggie Perkins taught middle and high school in both Florida and Georgia, but now works at Costco, of all places. She attributed the change from lunch boxes to big boxes, after years working in the educational world, to being unable to pay her bills and, more importantly, to sleep at night because of the stress from her job.
Her story is only one of many to describe the broad disillusionment common in education today being expressed by parents, students, taxpayers, and teachers. It also is a reminder that dream jobs can become nightmares if we become alienated from our labor. The God-given joy of meaningful work is often, in our late-modern cultural moment, sapped by overwork, overregulation, and mission drift.
On the one hand, it’s a mistake to think that landing one particular job, and nothing else, will bring us meaning and purpose in life. On the other hand, we talk often as if work is a necessary evil, a way to pay bills until we can escape to a life of leisure. So, ours is a culture that values rampant workaholism, striving for the next promotion, bonus, and higher salary to finally deliver an ever-elusive peace so that we can do nothing more than relax, enjoy ourselves, and avoid responsibilities. It’s a society confused.
Two virtues are in tension here. First, because humans are made in the image of God, the work of our hands is meaningful, a way of fulfilling our God-ordained purpose. Second, work done well is worth doing, even if it is not enjoyable work. Those of us fortunate enough to land a job we love know how satisfying work can be. At the same time, not everyone is blessed with employment they enjoy.
In Mike Rowe’s TV series, Dirty Jobs, the audience gets a tour of work that’s not glamorous. Yet, these are jobs that need to be done, that enable people to provide for their families, and that often provide a genuine sense of satisfaction to those who do them. As it turns out, the whole “fill the earth and subdue it” part of the creation mandate takes various forms, from one person to the next and from one cultural setting to the next.
In fact, for most of history and in a good portion of the world today, dream jobs are nothing more than just that, dreams. Most of humanity has lived life simply doing what their parents did, and with not nearly enough of a social safety net to be picky or entitled. Thus, until quite recently, meaningful work almost always entailed some form of manual labor. Most of life involved manual labor, in fact.
It’s in this context that we can best understand the Bible’s call, from nearly every other verse in Proverbs to the reminders throughout the New Testament, that we should work hard no matter the task at hand because it is glorifying to God. At the same time, Ecclesiastes is full of warnings against living for our jobs, especially since so much of our work after the fall can rightly be called “toil.” And, of course, one of the Ten Commandments, is to rest one day out of seven.
Christopher Watkin insists that God’s design of the Sabbath reveals
that work is not all there is for God, and we know from Exodus 20 that he doesn’t want it to be all there is for us either. After the work of creation, God stops and rests, then blesses the seventh day, and makes it holy. The climax of work is not a promotion, a raise, or recognition, but rest. This is a challenging dynamic both for the workaholic and for the loafer, who (as we have now come to expect) have both captured only part of a more complex biblical reality—a reality that they have dismembered and distorted by making one part of it into their whole truth. In today’s always-on, 24-7 world that never sleeps and rarely jumps off the hamster wheel of productivity long enough to dash to the shops and spend its accumulated wealth, following in God’s footsteps by resting one day in seven is about as political as any time management strategy can get.
To try to find ultimate meaning from our work is to make an idol of something finite. Simply put, work makes a lousy god. However, work was part of God’s original, good creation. Work is a contingent good, to be sure. It is worthwhile but not worth everything. Still, because of God’s good and gracious way of making us, the work of our hands can glorify Him and bless those around us. In that, we can find genuine contentment.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Timothy D. Padgett. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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